Four Engineers Talk About The Challenge

Q: How many engineers does it take to mike a drum kit?A: One, assuming the drummer shows up.With all due respect to drummers-having endured years of bad
Author:
Publish date:

Q: How many engineers does it take to mike a drum kit?

A: One, assuming the drummer shows up.

With all due respect to drummers-having endured years of bad jokes like that one-their style, touch and hardware have more to do with how they sound during playback than any other musician in the room. So when engineers discuss getting a drum sound, they're likely to talk about consistent touch, a well-tuned kit, torn heads and dealing with squeaky pedal noise before even mentioning a microphone. Keeping that in mind, we talked to a control room's worth of engineer/producers with more than 75 years of collective experience recording everything from Warwick & Bacharach to drum 'n' bass.

Oliver DiCicco owns and operates Mobius Music, a warm San Francisco studio with credits including the Charlie Hunter Quartet, Bill Frisell and Fred Frith. Gary Chester, co-owner and chief engineer at The Edison Studios in New York City for 13 years, began engineering in 1969 and has heard drum sounds come full circle since the days of The Belmonts and Jay and the Americans. Specializing in drum 'n' bass, jazz and funk is Paul Scriver's Square Peg Productions, a cozy project room in San Francisco, integrating the edge of modern music with old-school jazz recording styles. Jim Mitchell also added his insights on capturing a great drum sound. His credits include Guns N' Roses, Brother Cane and Thee Hypnotics, and his recent experiences recording the drums of G N' R and Slash's Snakepit give new meaning to the term "leakage control."

Return of the RoomMitchell has toured with Guns N' Roses to record a live album, and he may be the king of making mic leakage a friend. "[Guns N' Roses'] Matt Sorum's kit had four 18-inch subwoofers under the riser," he laughs, "two Marshall half-stacks for the guitars facing in and upward from his left and right, plus four 15-inch, four 12-inch and two 2-inch compression drivers behind him for his monitor mix. Everything was just blowing into the kit mics, but you have to use that to your advantage to capture the live vibe."

The live vibe is prevalent in the studio these days, too. From the original big-band room sound to '70s dead and back again, miking drums today has perhaps more to do with old-school miking savvy than ever before. "I starting recording professionally in the mid-'70s," DiCicco says, "and people were going for that tight, deader L.A. sound using heavily taped drums without much tone. The tendency now is a more natural, open sound, so a lot of rock and pop drummers are leaving the front heads on the kick now and using smaller snares tuned higher."

Chester followed his session drummer father from one classic New York gig to another as a kid in the late '50s and early '60s. After recording drums for 25 years, he hears a familiar tone today. "The sound of drums have really changed full circle," he says. "Everything was done with three room mics mixed to mono when I first started. Then as 16-tracks came, we started miking the drums closer, miking inside each tom to get separation and depending more on outboard equipment for ambience. The Record Plant sound came along, and the drum rooms and the drums themselves got so dead, there was no sound to them at all. Now the drums are coming back out of the iso booth and into the main room to get all that room sound and all that leakage. The new salsa and swing have reinvigorated that live, open sound."

Scriver believes miking techniques from classic, old jazz recordings are enjoying a rebirth, too, thanks to the live drum aesthetic of some new musical styles. "There's some eclectic jazz recordings where the drums are miked with just two PZM boundary mics mounted on Plexiglas and angled at 90 degrees as a stereo pair," he says. "That technique works great for drum 'n' bass, to get that really open room sound instead of just a dull thud on the kit."

Speed Is Still En VogueA quality that's never been out of style is being fast around a drum kit. As important to capturing live studio moments as it is to watching the clock, setting up quickly and getting a good sound is more significant with drums than with any other instrument. Whether it's with a pair of PZMs or a cabinet's worth of mics, knowing when to say when is important.

"Setting up quickly doesn't mean you do that at the expense of getting a good sound," DiCicco says. "You develop a baseline approach in a room you're familiar with to get a fairly consistent result every time. I'm a firm believer in not having the client sitting around waiting, and I don't want the drummer to get tired from playing quarter notes for six hours until any desire to play is completely sucked out. If you can get a good sound, just keep the flow of the session happening."

Time is money, so minimizing the number of mics needed to record a kit is a good idea. "I usually don't mike both heads of the toms, but some engineers do," Scriver says. "It's all about time in the studio, and it takes time for each additional mic to be checked for levels, connections, phase cancellation, EQ and panning. Even a simple three-tom kit-miking both heads requires setting up six mics."

"If you're scheduled to start a session at 10 and the drummer's late, you're lucky to get any setup time at all," says Chester. "A few New York drummers are famous for that! They come in, sit down and they're ready to do the take. Having an assistant go out and hit the drums for hours beforehand to get a sound means nothing, because it's all in the drummer's touch. If you're recording a basic cross-stick thing and it's just a wonderful feel, how much time should you spend on that sound? Doing jingle work teaches you to be pretty fast because you're typically recording drums for a country, rock and R&B spot all in one day. In the early days, we had this one drum kit miked and set up that we used for years, and you never wanted anyone to touch it."

The ultimate Drummer?But before one mic or baffle is even touched, getting a great sound starts with the kit-a quality as varied as the ways there are to play drums. A vocalist's cough can be edited, and guitarists get away with a little line buzz, but nothing sends an engineer out for a cigarette break faster than ill-prepared drums in the studio. Excessively detuned drums, cracked heads and a rattling hat stand won't make you popular with the engineer, but by the same token, nothing perks up a day's drum session more than a drummer showing up with a studio-ready kit.

According to Mitchell, one of the best drummers in this department is Simon Phillips. Not only are his drums tuned to perfection, they're pre-miked. "Simon has this huge kit with like three kick drums, a gong drum, six toms, a set of octabongs, couple of snares, two hi-hats and tons of cymbals. But he comes in with the whole kit miked with Shure Beta 98 clip-ons that are hard-wired to a patchbay, real impressive. Simon says, 'Trust me. Take these mic leads and do what you want from there. If you just listen to what he's going for and just bring his mics up to the board, it sounds great and sounds just like Simon Phillips in every studio, every time. It's very easy when you get to work with drummers like that."

DiCicco agrees: "The set has to sound good, the heads have to have the right tension for the size of the particular drum. One drummer once showed up without any spurs for his kick drum, so we ended up having to use screwdrivers and duct tape just so the kit wouldn't walk all over the room!

"It's amazing how ill-prepared some people can be, but most drummers these days are pretty sophisticated with their kits," DiCicco continues. "Every drum has a certain resonant frequency that it wants to be around. If you try to make it create frequencies lower than it's really capable of producing, you end up with a flabby drum head that sounds like you're dribbling a basketball in a gymnasium."

Chester recalls the period when no one used bottom heads: "There were Evans oil heads so loose they had wrinkles on 'em. You have to go with what the drummer or producer wants, but if they tune down too much, you start to get a lot of ringing and you have to overcompensate for that."

Scriver believes that, above all, the key to a good drum sound is tuning. "If the bass drum is tuned properly, it'll sound much better, but you can't do much if it's not," he says. "It's not as important with the lower frequencies of the kick, but I've spent hours adjusting snares and toms that are out of tune if the drummer is too lazy to tune them. Some drummers are totally together, with their toms tuned in a chord with octave, fifth, third, octave, and the kick drum maybe a fifth below that chord."

Drum by DrumWith more ways to mike a drum kit than there are days in a year, there's no universal "Miking 101" approach. Each engineer was more than willing to share some basic and not-so-basic ways to let a drum kit speak with the caveat that no single technique is nearly as important as listening to what the music and the musicians are trying to say.

Mitchell says he likes to use a lot of old-school ribbon mics for overheads to get the main sound of the drums. "On Slash's Snakepit we had a pair of mics in the corners of the room about 10 feet high to pick up the distant air of the drums," he explains. "I used a pair of RCA 77s as close mics that were maybe 8 feet in the air and not spread quite as wide, just off the corners of the drum kit. Some compression to get them to pump a little bit and breathe with the tempo of the track."

DiCicco is a big fan of using his mics efficiently, typically using a pair of overheads, a snare mic, kick, one on each tom and a hat mic he may or may not use. "When there's a lot of toms, I'll sometimes use one mic with a figure-eight pattern and put the mic between the two drums to pick up both. Ideally you can capture the entire kit with just a pair of mics, but the secret is just to work enough with any number of mics until it starts to become intuitive and you're quick at it."

"I think a lot of people probably like to mike their drums closer than I do, with the exception of toms," admits Scriver. "But in the small iso-booth space I have here, it doesn't matter as much if they're too far away because I'm not picking up a whole lot of room reflections."

Being a drummer and knowing how a drummer thinks also helps, as Chester has found. "A lot of jazz drummers don't want to hear the bass drum all the time," he says. "And they play so dynamically sometimes you wonder if they're playing the kick at all. You've got to make sure the bass player isn't washing out the bass drum. Somewhere between the two it really works because they're really one instrument together."

SnareThere's one mic in just about every engineer's repertoire. "I always come back to the Shure SM57 for the snare," DiCicco states. "I've tried condensers, but usually I'll top mike it with a 57, and if I want more snap, I'll use a bottom mic or mike the side of the shell. A friend of mine was into miking the hole, but I find you get too much air puffing out of the hole."

Scriver agrees, miking the top of the snare from different angles with an SM57 for sound and protective reasons on his projects. "It takes really high SPLs, and it's not going to break if it gets bashed by a drumstick. I used to put it really close to the head on a slight angle, but I found lately I like it up higher at a steeper angle to get more of the actual snare drum instead of this microscopic skin sound. I used to put a condenser mic underneath the snares, but I was getting a little tired of that sound."

Also an SM57 fan for snare, Mitchell mikes the bottom and often mates two mics for the top, a 57 on a mic stand with an AKG 452 with a -20dB pad to provide more options to work with back in the control room. "The 452 has a brighter pop to it, and the 57 is meatier," he says. "If I don't want to use the bottom snare and still want some bright splash on the top of the attack of the mic, I'll use the 452 and 57 taped together above the snare to give me the attack I need. I also move the 452 in and out until I hear where it works best in tandem with the 57."

KicksScriver says he likes hearing the shell of the drum but not necessarily its note, so he uses the AKG D112: "I like that sound, but it's probably better for a two-headed kick without a port on the front," he notes. "The Sennheiser 421 is a great kick mic, and I prefer the Audio-Technica ATM25 for picking up just the right amount of upper frequencies of the shell. It has a nice little bump around 250 Hz for all the extended lows, too, the thump of the kick." DiCicco adds that he prefers "either the AKG D112 or 421, your standard kick drum mics. I usually don't mike the beater side."

TomsThe Sennheiser 421 is also popular for miking toms; it's a solid dynamic mic that can take the occasional smack from an errant fill and still sound good. "I keep coming back to the 421s," DiCicco says. "Some drummers like their cymbals right on top of the toms, especially jazz drummers, so I'll get in really tight on the toms so that I can run the gain of the microphone down and pick up less leakage from the cymbals." Scriver opts for some heavy-duty AKG C535 condenser mics for the toms. They can also withstand the kind of abuse more fragile condensers wilt under, he says: "I've seen some pretty beat-up mic windscreens."

Printing EffectsIt's common to print drums with EQ, compression or gating, although never to the point of overcompensating for what's going on in the room. "I like to use compression; I'm not afraid to hit the tape hard," Mitchell says. "I don't like to saturate with it. I like to keep it dynamic, getting some tape compression without everything being crushed to tape so hard that you lose the punch of the drums."

DiCicco uses EQ to shape his mic tones, especially on kick drum. "When I'm EQ'ing the kick, I'll EQ for a strong fundamental and then notch out around 300 cycles to clear out some of the wooliness of the instrument," he says. "Then I'll add some attack on the higher frequencies around 4 k or 10 k, depending on the drum and what frequencies are available on the EQ. I'll also use some low-frequency roll-off to clear up the low end so the kick isn't rumbling too much through everything."

"I do print EQ to tape," Scriver says. "But if a frequency-gain knob is turned way up, I've got to go back into the room. I'll add a little top to the snare drum or a point on the kick, add some bottom to the kick drum. I'll do as much of that as possible to tape. I never print gating to tape, because I like the drums to be open, and I don't mind some of the leakage of stuff into the other mics. I make it work to my advantage."

Compression is something Scriver also pays attention to. "Compressing to tape sounds totally different than compressing the signal coming back off the tape," he says. "It's the nature of the transients. Tape doesn't capture every single transient, so the compressor is working with a different set of parameters than when coming from tape. The compressor is going to react slower, because the tape sound is not quite as fast as the real snare; you just can't get the same sound."

Live Drums AND New TricksChester says: "We work with a lot of drum samples, but not that many loops, because this is primarily a live music recording studio. But it's really interesting to record live drums playing along with electronic and sampled drums-that's a challenge."

Mitchell would agree. "The great thing in mixing electronics with live open-miked drums is combining the two somewhere in the middle. We wanted to overdub a loop into the intro of a song on the new Snakepit record, but it was a free-time thing recorded without a click track, and we couldn't line up the original loop to it. So we sampled some of Matt Laug's live drum hits doing the same kind of stuff, cut them up in a sequencer and moved each note of the loop to match the open tempo of the intro. We did a similar thing with dual drum parts on another song where both things were played and recorded by the same drummer [Laugh] live, but one was deconstructed and rebuilt into a drum loop and the other's the real thing-an interesting mix that creates a great groove."

A trick that surely every engineer with a kid has tried is the baby drum set. Mitchell worked with Denny Fongheiser on the album Lifted by XC-NN, and they used the baby kit that belonged to Fongheiser's kid, filled with towels, miked with u47 tube mics and tricked-out with heavy compression to get some great 808-like hip hop grooves.

Another not-so-common trick is to re-amplify a drum sound to beef up a snare or re-trigger it all together. Like a ghost drummer in the iso booth, the original hit is sent back out to the room through a compact near-field monitor, the heavier the better. "I put the speaker right on top of a snare drum and re-record the snare vibrating from the original track," Scriver says. "It gets the snare rattling and puts some life back into it, or it can completely replace the original. I've heard tracks re-amped with distortion or through a [Line 6] POD that sound great. I've had to re-amp individual drums occasionally when I'm working with furnished tapes where the original track just wasn't recorded right, but it also offers many creative possibilities."